The first woman governor of Vermont was Madeleine Kunin (nee May; born 1933). As a three-term Democratic governor, (1985-1991), her major concerns were fiscal responsibility, education, and the environment.
Madeleine (May) Kunin was born September 28, 1933, in Zurich, Switzerland, the second child of Ferdinand May, a German-Jewish shoe importer, and Renee Bloch May. Pressed for money following the death of her husband in 1936 and fearing the growing Nazi threat to European Jews, Renee May left Switzerland in 1940 with her two children to join relatives living in the Forest Hills neighborhood of New York City. To support her family, May held jobs as a seamstress, a French tutor, and a baby-sitter. The Mays eventually moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Working as a waitress to pay her expenses, Madeleine attended the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, graduating in 1956 with honors in history. She then took the M.S. degree in journalism at Columbia University and secured a job as a general reporter with the Burlington (Vermont) Free Press, the only paper to offer her a post that was not stereotyped as something a woman should do.
In 1959 she married Dr. Arthur Kunin, a kidney specialist at the University of Vermont School of Medicine. She worked for a year after her marriage as a writer and assistant producer with a Burlington television station before resigning to have her first child, a daughter, in 1961. She subsequently had three sons and put aside her career to raise her family. "I loved having children. I suspect that's why I had four of them," she told a reporter in a 1985 interview.
She remained active in community affairs, most conspicuously with the League of Women Voters, and also pursued a Master's degree in English while doing occasional freelance writing. With her family Kunin spent 1970 in Switzerland while her husband was on sabbatical there. She was so moved by the women activists she met who were then struggling to get the franchise for Swiss women that she returned to Vermont with a rekindled desire "to make a difference."
Kunin entered politics when she campaigned to become Burlington's first woman alderman in 1972. She followed her narrow defeat for alderman by winning a seat in the Vermont House of Representatives later that year. A liberal Democrat in a state whose traditional commitment to the Republican Party was being eroded, she ran on a platform that stressed educational, environmental, and poverty issues. During six years in the house Kunin impressed colleagues and fellow Vermonters with her attention to the budget process and served as chairperson of the house appropriations committee in her third and final term.
She then served two terms as lieutenant governor before securing the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1982. The state's most visible Democratic officeholder, she lost a close contest to a popular Republican incumbent but two years later emerged victorious in a campaign in which she stressed fiscal issues, education, and the environment. She was the first Jew and the first woman to be elected governor of Vermont. Although her pollster showed that her popularity among women voters had been significant in her victory, Kunin aptly remarked of her achievement in becoming just the fourth woman in American history to be elected governor whose husband had not already held that office, "You have to build your own credentials as a candidate, not just as a woman."
Aided by Vermont's economic growth, she erased a large budget deficit she had inherited from her predecessor. She also fought for and got more money for education, the creation of a state venture capital corporation, and tough new environmental laws and enforcement even when that meant confronting the state's powerful ski industry. Observers also noted that from the start Kunin displayed a hard-to-define style that, while effective, was different from that of her male predecessors. "The testosterone level (at her inauguration) fell dramatically," remarked one pundit.
Kunin's bid for reelection in 1986 seemed sure until the entry into the gubernatorial race of a third significant candidate threw the election to the legislature where she won handily. During her second term she attracted more attention nationally; speculation arose that she might enter the Cabinet should a Democrat win the presidency in 1988. Although she did not reject the possibility that she might some day run for the U.S. Senate, she announced her candidacy for a third term as governor in 1987. Responding to her critics' accusations that she was "straddlin' Madeleine," the introspective Kunin declared, "I don't yell, but I know how to fight for what I want." "You also have to be willing to exercise power," she had stated on an earlier occasion. "We've been educated to be mothers, peacemakers, but we must learn that we can't please everybody." She made it clear that what she wanted for Vermont was planned growth, the balancing of economic development with concern for the environment.
Disturbed by the intellectual dishonesty of many politicians, she announced in early 1990, while serving her third term as governor, that she would not seek re-election. "We are living in a time when we set the stage nationally for political disillusionment when politicians make promises that are impossible to keep. Worst among these is the promise of no new taxes, while guaranteeing continued, or even vastly enhanced, results," she said.
In the absence of a full biography, those seeking additional information about Madeleine Kunin can consult several articles. She was profiled in People magazine (April 1, 1985). Additional sources are Nancy Day, "Madeleine Kunin," Working Woman (July 1986), and Sally Johnson, "The Kunins: A Family Portrait," in Vermont Sunday Magazine (March 31, 1985). "Green Crisis" in The Economist (January 23, 1988) and Kunin's own "Lessons From One Woman's Career" in Journal of State Government (September-October 1987) were also of value. Vermont's largest newspaper, the Burlington Free Press, was another useful source. See also a brief mention in Platt's Oilgram News (December 11, 1992). □